2012 Hovorka Prize goes to world expert on Tibet—Melvyn Goldstein

The man known as the father of modern Tibetan studies can add another distinguished title to his list: winner of the 2012 Frank and Dorothy Humel Hovorka Prize.

Melvyn C. Goldstein, Case Western Reserve’s John Reynolds Harness Professor of Anthropology, will receive the honor during university commencement exercises at 9 a.m. Sunday, May 20, in the Veale Convocation and Recreation Center. Given to those who have made extraordinary contributions to their academic field and to Case Western Reserve, the award is considered one of the highest forms of recognition a faculty member can receive.

The Hovorka Prize follows soon after another significant moment in Goldstein’s career, an event held during the Association of Asian Studies annual meeting in March, titled “A Quarter Century of Fieldwork in Tibet: A Panel in Honor of Melvyn Goldstein.”

Goldstein’s longstanding focus on the region dates back to the mid-1960s, when he interviewed legions of Tibetan refugees while a graduate student at the University of Washington. He went on to earn this nation’s first doctorate in Tibetan anthropology, then joined the Case Western Reserve faculty in 1968. Goldstein has remained here ever since, chairing the anthropology department from 1975 to 2002 and launching the university’s renowned Center for Research on Tibet in the mid-1980s. In 1985, Goldstein became the first Western anthropologist to conduct fieldwork in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, an achievement realized after years of lobbying.

“I was beginning to think I would never get permission, when one morning I received a phone call saying that ‘the Chinese have approved your project and want you to come as soon as possible,’” Goldstein recalled. “To finally be in [the Tibetan city of] Lhasa, doing research 25 years after I first started studying Tibet, was a tremendous thrill.”

In 1986 Goldstein negotiated the first collaborative research agreement that the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences (TASS) contracted with any foreign entity. The collaboration has enabled long-term research and exchanges; to date seven Tibetan researchers have come from Lhasa to Case Western Reserve to study English and anthropology. One of the seven became Tibet’s first PhD in anthropology.

While Goldstein’s dissertation focused on the Tibetan political system, many of his earliest works thereafter focused on the Tibetan language. He ultimately authored six books on Tibetan language, including the first Tibetan-English dictionary of modern Tibet; he published the original effort in 1975, updating it in 1980 and 1984. In 2001 he revised the work altogether, ultimately issuing the 1,200-page New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibet with the University of California Press.

In addition to these efforts, Goldstein also performed groundbreaking research regarding Tibet’s ethnographically rare marriage system known as fraternal polyandry, which involves two or more brothers jointly taking a bride. Through hundreds of interviews, Goldstein was able to argue convincingly that polyandry was not practiced in Tibet because of female infanticide or extreme poverty, as was commonly thought, but rather it was practiced by richer, land-holding families who used it both to prevent the fragmentation of their family’s land—much like primogeniture in Europe—as well as to concentrate male labor in their families. Goldstein’s research further showed that more than 30 percent of women aged 20 to 40 went unmarried as a result of polyandry.

Of Goldstein’s many academic publications on the subject, his 1987 Natural History article, “When Brothers Share a Wife,” has become a classic of anthropology, reprinted regularly for anthropology readers and used in introductory classes.

Since then Goldstein has conducted research in rural Tibet every few years following his two longitudinal projects, one on nomadic pastoralists and the other on rural farmers.

Throughout this time, Goldstein also reshaped our understanding of modern Tibet through a four-volume history of Tibet in the 20th century. The first volume, A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State (University of California Press, 1989), is the only book on a Tibetan topic to have been awarded recognition by the Association of Asian Studies, whose Levenson Prize committee said of it, “This monumental study is a path-breaking contribution to our understanding of modern Tibet.”

Since then Goldstein has published a second volume in the history and recently completed the third. In total, Goldstein’s career includes 20 books or monographs, 101 scholarly articles and popular pieces in National Geographic Magazine, Natural History and Foreign Affairs.

During his career, Goldstein also merged his extensive firsthand experience living and studying in contemporary Tibet with knowledge of Tibetan history to address the “Tibet Question,” the famous conflict over the status of Tibet vis-à-vis China.

After lecturing on the topic for many years, in 1997 he published The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama (U. of California Press). Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times wrote of the his effort: “For those who want a balanced account in English, the best place to look is the work of Melvyn Goldstein, a first-rate scholar of Tibetan history who knows the language and culture intimately.”

Goldstein’s broad research interests and expertise is reflected in the diverse sources of his many grants. Awards include funding from federal organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation as well as private foundations such as the National Geographic Society and the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. In 2009, he won election to the National Academy of Sciences.